How humble grain bourbon rose to embody US exceptionalism

BOURBON COUNTY, Ky. — About 250 years in the past, farmers searching for a approach to make their surplus corn crop worthwhile determined to distill it. Today, that leftover grain has turn out to be a billion-dollar trade and an emblem of the Bluegrass State’s identification, economic system and tradition. 

“How bourbon came about is [what] … the American spirit looks like: business, independence, freedom, a little bit of luck and a lot of perseverance,” mentioned Justin Thompson.

Thompson and his colleague Justin Sloan are the proprietors of The House of Bourbon, the world’s largest bourbon retailer, situated on West Main Street in Lexington proper throughout from Mary Todd Lincoln’s childhood dwelling.

And proper now, enterprise is booming.

Thompson and Sloan began amassing uncommon and classic bottles of bourbon 20 years in the past when the drink was out of favor. Then, 4 years in the past, the state handed a legislation permitting the resale of distilled spirits and the duo opened their retailer, promoting not simply their stockpile however the historical past of the drink itself.

Bourbon is concocted from a strict method. “By law it has to be made with a minimum of 51 percent corn aged in charred new oak barrels and stored at no more than 125 proof and bottled at no less than 80 proof,” Thompson mentioned.

But its candy, wealthy taste was truly born out of happenstance. In the early days, the perfect marketplace for bourbon was on the East Coast, so farmers had to ship their barrels down the Mississippi to Louisiana then round Florida and up the coast. The journey took months but additionally allowed the whiskey to age fantastically.

Justin Sloan (left) and Justin Thompson of Lexington’s House of Bourbon own the state's largest bourbon store.
Justin Sloan (left) and Justin Thompson of Lexington’s House of Bourbon personal the state’s largest bourbon retailer.
Salena Zito

“When merchants along the East Coast started marveling about this red whiskey with its unique flavor, that marked the beginning of the bourbon industry,” mentioned Thompson. 

In 1964, Congress deemed bourbon the nation’s native spirit, and there’s nothing extra American than having fun with a sip of the brown stuff in a basic cocktail like a mint julep or an quaint on the Fourth of July weekend. 

But it’s solely up to now 10 years that America’s urge for food for bourbon has actually skyrocketed — and Kentucky tourism together with it. 

While bourbon can technically be crafted in any state, Kentucky makes 95 % of the world’s provide. The whiskey is now the state’s $8.6 billion signature trade, producing 20,100 jobs with a median wage of $95,000, an quantity that has climbed by 23 % since 2009. 

Bourbon is now a luxury item, with the Pappy Van Winkle brand often retailing for more than $1,000 a bottle.
Bourbon is now a luxurious merchandise, with the Pappy Van Winkle model usually retailing for greater than $1,000 a bottle.
Getty Images

According to the Kentucky Distillers Association, vacationers to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail spend on common between $400 and $1,200 a visit — with greater than 70 % of holiday makers coming from outdoors the state. 

“This industry is a testament to the American spirit of making something from nothing, or making something from something leftover,” mentioned Kentucky state Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, a Bourbon County Republican. 

Right now, Kentucky has $2.3 billion in bourbon-related capital initiatives deliberate, together with a large $1.2 billion enlargement at The Buffalo Trace, the nation’s premier distillery courting again to the late 18th century. The Buffalo Trace now crafts a few of the world’s most sought-after manufacturers, together with Elmer T. Lee, E.H. Taylor and Pappy Van Winkle, which may retail for greater than $1,000 a bottle. 

“Like works of art, they are more than likely snapped up by collectors and either kept for themselves or sold at highly inflated prices,” mentioned Thayer. 

The Buffalo Trace, the country’s premier distillery, dates back to the late 18th century.
The Buffalo Trace, the nation’s premier distillery, dates again to the late 18th century.
Salena Zito

But whereas some labels have vaulted into the realm of luxurious, the bourbon trade as a complete would by no means have come about with out humble grit and ingenuity. Over the years, it has survived fickle client traits, pure disasters like flooding and drought, and authorities overreach within the type of Prohibition to turn out to be an emblem of our nation — and the delight of Kentucky. 

“Kentucky has two unique signature industries, horses and bourbon. And no offense to other states, but if we don’t protect horses and bourbon in terms of the economic effect of both, we’re West Virginia or Mississippi,” mentioned Thayer. 

“And while those are fine places, we have two things that are unique to Kentucky like nowhere else.” 

Salena Zito is the writer of “The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics.”

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.